The season for horror stories is never over. Especially this time around as the seasons transition and pollen covers every tangible surface; what could be scarier than getting through a workday with an allergy headache? I find myself seeking out scares as I sit outside and try to read, unsuccessfully swatting insects from my face. For such instances, short stories are the perfect fix. After all, you are only going to be outside for a total of 15 minutes before you realize it’s not meant to be. So I have for you a list of nine horror short story collections that have helped me scratch that itch (these books also make for excellent insect bite scratchers) of reading something short, and definitely not sweet.
Salt Slow by Julia Armfield
This book has been compared to Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties so many times that in my mind they are almost interchangeable. However, it is fair to say that Armfield’s imagination is a creepy wonder of its own. Within the stories, she explores gender roles, sexuality, societal pressures, growing up, and falling in love, all with a fabulist touch that makes you question what’s bubbling underneath the surface. A must-read from the collection is “The Great Awake,” in which a strange phenomenon causes the majority of the citizens of a picturesque city to become insomniacs.
Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez, Translated by Megan McDowell
If that skeleton hugging its covers lying in wait with flowers doesn’t pique your interest, I apologize, but I am then deeming you hard to please. This is a book obsessed with death and sex and ghosts, both morbid and lustful. The dead are always crawling up from beneath the dirty streets, refusing to stay buried. Pleasure is achieved by way of self-harm or the realization of a sadistic fetish. Read for yourself to see what the horrors of smoking in bed might be, beyond the obviously burnt sheets. A recommended story from the collection is “The Well,” in which a child struggles with paranoia her whole life after visiting a reputed witch.
Ghost Summer by Tananarive Due
I read Tananarive’s novel The Good House and still think about it today. I f you have ever wanted to read a better, more contextual book version of the movie The Skeleton Key, then you should check out the above. Why do I mention her novel when this is a list of stories? It’s because Due successfully pulls off a lot of the feats in that novel in this collection as well. What especially stands out is Due’s love for history and her desire to share it — whether she is writing a dystopian, science fiction, or apocalyptic tale, historical elements are present and accounted for. This gives her stories a layer of authenticity where it becomes difficult to look at Due without thinking about all her characters. The first short tale, “The Lake,” is about a woman becoming on the outside what she is on the inside, and sets the tone for the horror that is about to come.
Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings by Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson is the kind of author who makes you afraid to go outside, but you stay at home only to realize the horror never left your home. While her short story “The Lottery” is well-known, this collection features some of her never-before-published stories. The first story, “Paranoia,” will show you just what I mean about inescapable horrors of the mind. There also hilarious tidbits from her daily life towards the end which proves to be a welcome change from your typical heart leaping out of your chest.
Taiping Tales of Terror by Julya Oui
I have not read this yet. But, this introduces the reader to a variety of ghosts narrated by boys seated around the campfire. The author makes use of the landscape of Taiping, which is a town in Northwest Malaysia, to further bring out the eeriness, creepiness, and thrill of the short stories. The short stories are also sprinkled with tons of Malaysian culture — think Nyonya houses, trishaws, and Buddhist temples.
Thin Places by Kay Chronister
Chronister’s focus throughout these stories is women who struggle to be heard, who strive to gain power and agency, who are haunted by ghosts real and imagined. They swim in legend and the supernatural but surface in reality which makes them all the more chilling. You find a whole cast of characters here — witches to demons, mothers to daughters — as the themes of loss, grief, and resilience are explored. The story from the collection called “The Women Who Sing for Sklep,” about a composer seeking a new sound, is a must-read.
Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda, Translated by Polly Barton
This collection is one of retellings. It takes several Japanese myths and urban legends and turns them on their head. The stories woven here are so brilliant that I would eagerly looked up what legend or myth the story I had just read came from. On the surface you have premises like a busybody aunt who disapproves of hair removal or a cheerful lover who visits every night to take a luxurious bath, but it’s the undertones mixed with the simplistic narrative that will truly make chills run down your spine.
Burning Your Boats: The Collected Short Stories by Angela Carter
If your idea of horror is the unsettling feeling that creeps under your skin and stays there, then Carter’s entire collection is for you. Her work takes stock imagery of our imagination like legends, and historical figures, and plunges it into her surreal and gothic imagination. Her works resemble the works of Brothers Grimm, Burroughs, Hoffman, and Poe, but vibrate with themes of feminism, pain, and macabre that are unique only to her. Highlights include “Loves of Lady Purple” and “The Tiger Bride.”
Night Shift by Stephen King
Would it be a horror story list without a work of King’s on it? Probably. It is by no means a prerequisite, but this collection really is excellent. It is the first collection of short stories by him and each of the stories is fantastically edited and lined up. The first story, “Jerusalem’s Lot,” takes place a good few years before his novel Salem’s Lot and serves as flawless foreshadowing for what’s to come.